Given that I’m now in my fifth week as the substitute pastor for my church, I can’t help but be thinking a lot about the Bible and how people approach it, use it, and abuse it. Of course, the worst abusers are those running for public offices. Hearing politicians quote the Bible, or in some cases just making up what they imagine is a religious sounding phrase and claiming that it comes from the Bible, is sort of jarring anyhow. Of course, politicians aren’t alone in this. I can’t count the number of times I hear made-up Bible quotes in movies and television shows—or from the lips of just random people I come in contact with.
More commonly, people just take phrases out of context and use them willy-nilly in ways that have nothing to do with what the point of the biblical text actually was (sort of like how pundits take the words of politicians and use them in whatever way best embarrasses those they dislike or helps their favorites).
In reading the Bible, as with reading anything, context really does matter. I don’t like to rain on people’s parades, but it disturbs me sometimes when I see people take a comforting passage and apply it to themselves or others as some sort of universal promise, but then completely ignore the actual point of the words. Because of that, those sorts of verses don’t do a whole lot for me, not anymore. For instance, this passage from Jeremiah is a favorite:
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11)
While this passage from the same prophet is rarely invoked:
I will punish you as your deeds deserve,
declares the Lord.
I will kindle a fire in your forests
that will consume everything around you. (Jeremiah 21:14)
But the context of both is the same: God’s judgment on ancient Judah at the hands of the Babylonians.
And of course it is easy to see why people quote that Jeremiah 29:11 passage. It promises comfort—and it seems to suggest that God has only good things in store for us. However, in context, the passage was given to the people of Israel as they were being carted off to captivity, assuring them that God would take care of them and bring them back from their punishment. It is in the context of the contract God has with Israel, which promises punishment for disobedience because they are his people—and that they are his people, regardless of their actions—along with the promises of protection and support. God treats us like our parents did—or should—not like a fairy godmother might.
So the comfort is there, as long as we keep in mind the context; but it is hardly an assurance that nothing bad will ever happen.